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20 Questions with Michael McCann

Michael is the founder of Dreamtime Australia Design and offers a unique skill set as an ‘insider’ with 28 years in hospitality operations.

Iwas about to get married and my future wife didn’t like the idea of living in 12 more countries. We were living in Mexico and decided to start Dreamtime there in 1995, initially as a small luxury resort development, design and operational company. But without capital backing that was very difficult to achieve.

After returning to Australia in 1997 we initially consulted to restaurant clients and also operated a few before finally repositioning Dreamtime as a complete service design company, offering a range of services such as site selection, negotiation, architecture, interior design, commercial kitchen and bar design, lighting design, graphic design and even preparing financial projections and key staff recruitment.

I knew if I wanted to design top-level hospitality projects I could not get there by designing takeaways in shopping malls. But how do you approach the nation’s top restaurateurs with nothing to show? I had to find clients who didn’t think they needed the country’s top designer, or even the best restaurant design — then give it to them anyway.

Initially, we designed two small-budget restaurants (Zenith on Booth and Dish in Byron Bay). Both achieved a one hat ranking and we got some press. Then Flying Fish restaurant in Sydney’s Jones Bay Wharf won the national restaurant design award in 2004 and really raised our visibility.

How did we keep going through the GFC? Ha — I fired everybody! In all seriousness it was a very difficult and depressing time. We had approximately 80 percent of our projects cancelled within a four-month period at the end of 2008. I was forced to reduce our office staff from 12 down to two just to keep the business going, and I lost a lot of fantastic people. I’m not exaggerating when I say we had to ration food and petrol at home for a year or two just to stay open and keep the kids in school.

I would encourage young designers to be more creative and not just repeat the easiest designs possible with no fear of failure.

Design colleges need to change their curriculums to teach students how to build their designs and become experts in materials, and get actual work experience with builders in the field.

Build-ability is everything — right down to the millimetre.

I would guess that 80 to 90 percent of all restaurant and bar designs in Australia at the moment involve almost the exact same recycled bricks, rustic timber flooring, industrial lights and variations on the same furniture, fixtures and equipment. The entire country is starting to look like it has been designed by one firm.

The top designers worldwide are the ones which understood how to conjure up a complete concept — not just pick out a number of finishes and fixtures which really have no relation to one another — but a real concept. These are the environments that patrons never want to leave, and dramatically change the financial fortunes of the venues. This is what I try to achieve.

Luckily we’ve never been sued nor had fees deducted for screwing something up. I’m super careful in our design documentation — not a single page of design has ever left our office without me signing it off, which slows things down a bit after the tenth revision but is the only way to protect your business.

Australian design is a world leader in terms of quality and innovation, be it in architecture or interior design, and I am proud of calling myself an Australian designer even though I’m originally from the US. This is one of the reasons I chose to use the word ‘Australia’ in our company name as well as the Aboriginal graphic.

The smallest job I’ve ever done would probably be Pony restaurant in The Rocks area of Sydney, which was only 104sqm inside, with a 60sqm deck. It’s still one of my favourites and started laneway dining in Sydney as well as the trend of cooking on firewood.

Our largest design was the master planning of a new national park with resorts, a golf course, natural mountain attractions and so on for the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, through Aldar Development Corp. It was fascinating: they had to fly our 3D models via helicopter to his weekend palace at the top of a mountain in Al Ain for approval.

If I had to pick one or two great designs that really impacted me I would have to say the original Hakkasan restaurant in London designed by Christian Liagre, and Mezzanine restaurant in Singapore designed by Super Potato from Japan. The depth and beauty of the concepts, materiality, lighting, FF&E, you name it — tremendous ‘wow’ and that important but elusive sense of mystery that makes you want to explore every corner. 

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